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Alberta Hunter (April 1, 1895 – October 17, 1984) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and nurse. Her career had started back in the early 1920s, and from there on, she became a successful jazz and blues recording artist, being critically acclaimed to the ranks of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. In the 1950s, she retired from performing and entered the medical field, only to successfully resume her singing career in her eighties.
1910s – 1930s
She first toured Europe in 1917, performing in Paris and London. The Europeans treated her as an artist, showing her respect and even reverence, which made a great impression on her.
Her career as singer and songwriter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and she appeared in clubs and on stage in musicals in both New York and London. The songs she wrote include the critically acclaimed "Downhearted Blues" (1922). She recorded several records with Perry Bradford from 1922 to 1927.
Hunter wrote "Downhearted Blues" while recording for Ink Williams at Paramount Records, but she received only $368 in royalties. Williams secretly sold the recording rights to Columbia Records, in a deal giving the royalties to Williams. The song became a big hit for Columbia, with Bessie Smith as the vocalist. Hunter learned what Williams had done and stopped recording for him.
In 1928, Hunter played "Queenie" opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat at Drury Lane. She subsequently performed in nightclubs throughout Europe and appeared for the 1934 winter season with Jack Jackson's society orchestra at London's Dorchester Hotel. While at the Dorchester, she made several HMV recordings with the orchestra and appeared in Radio Parade of 1935 (1934), the first British theatrical film to feature the short-lived Dufaycolor, but only Hunter's segment was in color. She spent the late 1930s fulfilling engagements on both sides of the Atlantic and the early 1940s performing at home. In 1944, she took a U.S.O. troupe to Casablanca and continued entertaining troops in both theatres of war for the duration of World War II and into the early postwar period. In the 1950s, she led U.S.O. troupes in Korea, but her mother's death in 1954 led her to her seek a radical career change. She prudently reduced her age, "invented" a high school diploma, and enrolled in nursing school, embarking on what was apparently a fulfilling career in healthcare.
Bored by inactivity, Hunter decided to resume her singing career, because she "never felt better." In 1978, at the suggestion of Charles Bourgeois, restaurateur Barney Josephson offered Hunter a limited engagement at his Greenwich Village club, The Cookery. She accepted and a two-week gig proved a smash when the comeback garnered generous media attention and people started flocking into The Cookery. Two weeks stretched into an open-ended engagement that made Hunter a star reborn and a fixture of New York nightlife.
Impressed with the attention paid her by the press, John Hammond signed Hunter to Columbia Records. He had not previously shown interest in Hunter, but he had been a close associate of Barney Josephson decades earlier, when the latter ran the Café Society Uptown and Downtown clubs. Her Columbia albums, The Glory of Alberta Hunter, Amtrak Blues, (where she sang the Jazz classic "The Darktown Strutters' Ball"), and Look For the Silver Lining, did not do as well as expected, but sales were nevertheless healthy. There were also numerous television appearances, including on To Tell The Truth (in which panelist Kitty Carlisle had to recuse herself, the two having known each other in Hunter's heyday). There was also a walk-on role in Remember My Name, a film produced by film director Robert Altman, for which he commissioned her to write and to perform the soundtrack music. As capacity audiences continued to fill The Cookery nightly, concert offers came from Brazil to Berlin, and there was an invitation for her to sing at the White House. At first, she turned it down, because, she explained, "they wanted me there on my day off," but the White House amended its schedule to suit the veteran artist. During that time, there was also a visit from former First Lady turned book editor Jackie Onassis, who wanted to sign her up for an autobiography. Unhappy with the co-author assigned to the project, the book was eventually done for another publisher, with the help of writer Frank Taylor.
The comeback lasted six years, and Hunter toured in Europe and South America, made more television appearances, and enjoyed her renewed recording career as well as the fact that record catalogs now once again contained her old recordings, going back to her 1921 debut on the Black Swan label. Dressed in her trademark fringed shawls and sporting vast dangling earrings, she performed and charmed audiences.
She continued to perform until shortly before her death in October 1984. She is buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum, Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York (Elmwood section; plot 1411).
Alberta Hunter's life is documented in Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin' (1998), a documentary written by Chris Albertson and narrated by pianist Billy Taylor, and in Cookin' at the Cookery, a biographical musical by Marion J. Caffey that has toured the United States in recent years with Ernestine Jackson as Hunter.
Alberta Hunter came from a difficult background. Her father left when she was little more than a child and to support the family Hunter’s mother worked as a servant to a whorehouse in Memphis. Although she married again in 1906 Hunter was not happy with her new family. Hunter left for Chicago around the age of eleven in the hopes of becoming a paid singer; she had heard that it paid ten dollars an hour. Instead of finding a job as a singer she had to earn money by working at a boardinghouse that paid 6 dollars a week as well as room and board. Hunter's mother left Memphis and moved in with her soon afterward.
Hunter finally got her break when she moved to New York City. She performed with such famous jazz names as Bricktop and Louis Armstrong. She made her home in the city and bought more than one house there, but it was a constant reminder of the struggle for work. Hunter felt more comfortable in Europe where the work was more readily available. Equally important to Alberta was the fact that racism was not as strong a factor outside of the United States as it was inside.